Driving Mount Lemmon: Sky Island Scenic Byway

Sky Island Scenic Byway is the only paved road that leads to the upper reaches of Mount Lemmon and the Santa Catalina Mountains. One of the most scenic drives in southern Arizona, the byway provides access to a fascinating land of great vistas, natural rock sculptures, cool mountain forests and deep canyons spilling out onto broad deserts.

Because the road starts in the Lower Sonoran Desert and climbs to the high coniferous forests, it offers the biological equivalent of driving from Southern Arizona to the forests of Canada in a short stretch of 27 miles. Here you’ll find plants and animals and geology that exhibit some of the most wide-ranging natural diversity to be found in any area of comparable size in the continental United States.

The road to Mount Lemmon begins in a forest of saguaro on the northeastern edge of Tucson. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road to Mount Lemmon begins in a forest of saguaro on the northeastern edge of Tucson. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can literally experience all four seasons during a single day’s journey, spending the morning wandering among giant saguaros, having a picnic lunch under a cottonwood tree, and playing in the snow later in the afternoon.

The drive up Sky Island Scenic Byway offers impressive views of the Tucson Valley, the surrounding mountains, and varied rock formations. The many pullouts, vista points, and interpretive overlooks along the way offer good photo-ops. Dozens of hiking trails offer access to the mountain’s backcountry canyons and ridges.

Driving up the mountain, every turn seems to reveal a new vista. It may be a community of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers different from the one around the previous curve. A new gallery of natural rock sculptures even more impossibly perched than the last, or a broader panorama that stretches in an entirely different direction than the one that caused you to stop and snap a photo just a few moments before.

Windy Point is a favorite half way stop, a transition between the desert cacti and coniferous forest areas. This overlook offers some of the most amazing views along the entire scenic drive. Wind-sculpted rock formations, views of the Huachuca, Patagonia, and Santa Rita Mountains, and the Tucson Basin await at 6,400 feet elevation.

Sweeping panoramas and precariously perched rocks create a surreal and photogenic landscape. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sweeping panoramas and precariously perched rocks create a surreal and photogenic landscape. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Geology Point Vista, offers another spectacular viewpoint. Sweeping panoramas and precariously perched rocks create a surreal and photogenic landscape.

Sky Island Scenic Byway continues to the top of Mount Lemmon at over 9,200 feet. The drive is a continuous climb with an average five percent grade. The route officially ends in a small town mostly filled with summer chalets, appropriately named Summerhaven. A great retreat for people to escape the summer desert heat.

While here, consider a few short side trips. For spectacular views in every season, Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, the southernmost ski area in the country, can be reached via East Ski Run Road. The Mt Lemmon Sky Valley chair lift runs all year round. It will take you to one of the highest points on the mountain. Panoramic views include Tucson, San Pedro Valley, and all the way to the Valley of the Sun (Phoenix area).

Continue a few miles further and turn onto Summit Road. At the road end is the actual summit of Mount Lemmon, an amazing way to end this scenic drive.

The San Pedro Vista which overlooks the San Pedro River Valley and beyond. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The San Pedro Vista which overlooks the San Pedro River Valley and beyond. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Often referred to as Mount Lemmon Highway or General Hitchcock Highway, Sky Island Scenic Byway drive begins at the northeastern edge of Tucson. If you are coming from I-10, take exit 256 and follow East Grant Road for 8 miles. Turn left onto East Tanque Verde Road and continue for three miles until East Catalina Highway is on your left. The start of this scenic drive is in 4 miles as you enter the Coronado National Forest.

Paved and suitable for most vehicles. Large motorhomes and trailers over 22 feet may have trouble negotiating steep grades and sharp turns. Places to turn around are few.

If you are traveling this route during winter, keep in mind that temperature differences from bottom to top is around 30 degrees and that upper portions may be closed due to snow. And in any season—bring water, extra clothes, and fuel up beforehand as there are no stations along the byway.

The many pullouts, vista points, and interpretive overlooks along the way offer good photo-ops. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The many pullouts, vista points, and interpretive overlooks along the way offer good photo-ops. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The highway, which is traveled by over 1 million visitors each year, was designated a Scenic Byway on April 28, 1995.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

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